Category Archives: Social Issues

Making a safer classroom for students’ gender identities

On the first day of school this year, I asked my students – 6th graders – to write down their personal preferred pronouns on an index card, along with other info about themselves. I demonstrated writing mine (she/her) on the document camera, and gave other pronoun examples: he/him, they/theirs.

I got a few blank stares, and a few clarifying questions. Mostly I saw expressions that belied the feeling, “Uh, why are you asking me this?” (Or so I assume.)

I was posing this question to them because asking about others’ preferred pronouns has become common practice in more and more of the other spheres of my life. Why wouldn’t I introduce this practice in an art room, where I want to foster trust, and create a safe space for sharing essential aspects of ourselves?

As a cisgender woman (I identify as the same gender that I was assigned at birth), sometimes telling my pronouns feels tedious (“Nothing surprising here…”). But I agree with the idea that our society is a safer, better place for everyone when we all define and redefine our gender expression throughout our lives. 

My students are young – eleven years old, mostly. They are growing up in a world that has categories for gender expression that certainly weren’t available to me in my small town in the 90’s, when I was in 6th grade. Language is continually evolving and shifting as our collective understanding of gender shifts: labels like “gender-non-conforming,” “non-binary,” even “transgender,” are relatively new. The term “intersex” might not be new, but understanding of it as an identity is changing.

When I read students’ index cards later, I was touched by the fact that they simply did it – they wrote down their preferred pronouns, even if it felt like a “No duh,” and maybe that act, alone, got them thinking about gender in new ways. I regretted not having them share their pronouns with others in their table groups – that’s at least as important as telling me. I made a note to myself to do that part differently on the first day of school next year.

A few weeks later, we were watching a short video interview with the artist Louie Gong – he talks about his identities. This idea, that we all have many identities, was new to many of them. I used some examples, “Maybe you identify as a young person, as a Muslim, as a boy, as a skateboarder, as an East African.” The concept that identities are overlapping, and not necessarily fixed, connects to their understanding of their gender. You might be “he/him” today, and “they/them” next September.

I haven’t yet seen examples of students explicitly exploring their gender identities in their artwork, but then again: when was the last time I made artwork directly about my own identity as “female”? Maybe it’s creeping in, in their sketchbooks, or in questions I hear about whether the people in their drawings look “like a girl” or “like a boy”?

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction outlines the rights of WA state students around Gender Identity and Expression. “Students have the right to express their gender at school – within the constraints of the school’s dress code – without discrimination or harassment.” But how do we prevent discrimination and harassment?

Students also have a right to use restrooms and locker rooms “consistent with their gender identity.” A federal decision in 2016 requires all states to commit to these policies to protect transgender youth, or risk losing federal funding. 

My school has a single gender-neutral, single-occupancy bathroom available to students – it’s near the main office, and I used it one day last week. I noticed some discreet graffiti along the doorframe inside. “Hey queers.” “If you’re cis and straight, don’t use this bathroom.” I moved in to look closely and saw more. “I want to die” was followed by a suicide hotline number in different handwriting.

How do we develop students’ empathy and understanding for others’ gender expression, and for their own? A gender-neutral bathroom is a great start, institutionally, for protecting the needs of transgender students. I’m also heartened by the ways that queer students are showing up for each other – through sharpie messages on the walls, and otherwise. But we need classrooms, and hallways, and locker rooms that are safer and more welcoming of all of our unique gender expressions and bodies.

I’m looking for more ways to expand students’ understanding of their own gender identities, and I hope that creates more appreciation for others’ evolving selves.  

The Discomfort of Learning—Plagiarism and Consequences

Recently students in a non-English language arts class turned in research papers worth a high percentage of their grade. Scoring the papers, their teacher found rampant plagiarism ranging from improper citing of sources to blatantly copying and pasting paragraphs of text from online sources without any citation at all.

My colleague who I will dub—Attentive-Responsible-Teacher (or Art)—followed our school’s handbook in regards to plagiarism. Art gave each student a zero on their paper, wrote up disciplinary referrals, and set parameters for students to try again. Because no one blatantly took an entire paper from another source and attempted to pass said paper off as their own, this teacher wanted students to learn from their mistake and have a chance to try again (at a 30% reduction).

Some parents and students came unglued.

Around 25% of the class had plagiarized sections in their papers and, according to Art, the responses from students ranged from taking full responsibility; to acknowledging poor note-taking strategies which led to the problem passages; to I never learned this.

After a flurry of emails, meetings, conferences and phone calls Art contacted me, as the English Department Chair, to clarify a few things.

Some students and parents argued their miss-cited papers landed in a gray area. That miss-citing sources is not the same as plagiarism. This is euphemism. Plagiarism, defined, is representing someone else’s words, image, etc. as one’s own. If a student includes a quote verbatim from a text without quote marks, they are graphically indicating those words are their own. Plagiarism.

It might be an honest mistake without mal-intent, but it is nonetheless a serious error deserving consequences. I spoke with a parent who felt the students should get to re-write the paper and still earn 100%, claiming that would make it a learning opportunity and not punishment. This contributed to an over-arching theme emerging from the conversations with parents and administrators: the students didn’t know they were plagiarizing so they can’t be punished for plagiarizing.

Of course they can. Just as I can get a speeding ticket when unaware of how fast I was driving, inadvertent plagiarism is not really a thing, but a rhetorical nicety created by parents and students to avoid the feeling of shame being called out as plagiarizers.  A natural human reaction.

Then it hit me, this situation was less about academic integrity than it was about failure. They failed something in such a way as to tarnish both their academic record (temporarily) and their personal integrity (also temporary, but I suspect it does not feel temporary).

From my teacher’s perspective, the academic learning opportunity is pretty clear. I hope they have a clearer sense of what constitutes academic plagiarism, and acts of academic plagiarism carry serious consequences (here a slight grade reduction, at University expulsion is on the list).

I also understand students and parents reacting to the culturally inherent fear of failure. The fact is, for learning to take place it must be uncomfortable and we must fail. As teachers, our job is not to make it more comfortable, but to respect students enough to walk them into discomfort, and not leave them there completely alone.

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever come across for education, or for life, is from Samuel Beckett’s enigmatic story Worstward Ho! where his characters face continual abstract struggle: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

This advice applies to teachers and students alike. There are all kinds of failure, and when it comes to learning, it is necessary. The reality is teachers and students (and even parents) sometimes have to sit in discomfort for any development to take place. We all have to try again and continually attempt to fail better.

 

The Kids without Lug Nuts

I live in a rural area. I have been teaching here for many years—same classroom, same job assignment. In July I left my teaching job, and started a new job—still in education, but out of the classroom.

I have been in my new job about two months, and am definitely enjoying it! However, last week I had the first serious tug at the heart I have felt since leaving my longtime school.

My two sons and I were running down the road, enjoying the summer. On the way back home, not too far from my house, I see a car pulled over. Two people get out, look at their tires, and just kind of stand there. My younger son notes a cat in the car. I note the car is full of items, mostly packed in trash bags.

As we came up to the car, one of the people says, “It’s Ms. Johnson!” I see that it is two former students, a young man and a young woman, who left school a handful of years ago. They are now in their early twenties, and they look incredibly relieved to see me.

The girl says, “The tire just came off my car–I think someone stole my lug nuts!” I don’t know a lot about cars, but even I could see the rear wheel hanging off at an odd angle. I leaned over to look—where lug nuts should be, there were none.

She said they were camping last night, and there were some unsavory characters at the campsite next to them. The young woman suspects her car was vandalized.

Someone had removed the lug nuts from the car of my former students–this is not something that would happen by accident. In addition, the boy doesn’t have a cell phone, and the girl’s phone battery had died.

I offer to run back to my house, get my phone, and then run back so they can use my phone to call for some assistance. I also spend more time talking to my two former students.

The girl tells me that she is feeling lucky. She says just a few minutes ago she felt unlucky–their lug nuts had been stolen, and they broke down in the middle of nowhere. Now she says she feels fortunate: they didn’t get into a major accident when the wheel came off, and then I came by.

More phone calls. It becomes clear they need a ride somewhere. The plan is I will drive the girl into town, and the boy will stay with the car and the cat. The girl will get her friend’s mom to come back and bring some lug nuts.

I go get my car and come back to pick up the girl. She said they lost their apartment and had been homeless since June, living out of their car in local campgrounds and in the woods.

She said it hadn’t been a good week. She recently started a new job, but then had gotten food poisoning, likely from something she ate while camping. Given their lack of access to refrigerator, this seemed a good possibility. She called in sick, but her new boss had said she couldn’t call in sick so soon after starting a new job, so then she lost her job.

The girl told me this morning her boyfriend had become very frustrated. He had tried to go fishing at the lake they were camping at, but he only had a handline. A handline, for those of you not familiar, is literally just that—a hook on a line. No pole—you just throw the line out with your arm. Usually her boyfriend had good success, but this morning he had been stymied. Another person had come along, fishing close to him with a pole, and that person got all the fish.

Being outfished by someone because they have a pole and you don’t? That is rural poverty.

I drop the girl off at her friend’s place. Thinking about what their breakfast must have been like without any fish or much other food, I head to the grocery store. I buy sandwiches, cat food, and a few other groceries.

I drive back down the road, and bring the food to the young man, who is very appreciative. I tell him I will be back in a while to check on how things are going with getting the lug nuts on once they get them.

These young people were already living on the edge, and I wanted to do what I could to make sure they didn’t go completely off a precipice.

I was pretty shaken up by the day’s events. These two former students had only left school a few years ago, and now they had almost nothing. I felt as though we may have failed them in school, yet I remember numerous care teams, interventions, and services provided for both.

There were a number of issues here: paid sick leave, low income housing, unemployment.

Education was also an issue. One of these young people had graduated from high school, and one had not.

Teachers are at their best when they care individually for students. That is something that is difficult for us to measure with our certification and evaluation systems, but it doesn’t make it any less important. I do remember caring for these students in school, and I know my colleagues did as well.

My former students did not have the money for a tow, and if their car were to be impounded, along with everything they own in it, they would not be able to afford to release it. It would be devastating for them. Setbacks have a disproportionate impact when you are poor.

As educators we work to support every student, and sometimes we do not succeed. Efforts that combine caring for individual students with systems that support families and communities should continue and expand. We can do more.

After some time, their friend’s mom shows up with the girl…and lug nuts! My former students introduce me.

“She’s our teacher,” they say. I never felt so proud.

I bring tools and more water to drink. Soon my former students are off. They were going to make it into town.

On this day, they were both very gracious and appreciative for the little I provided: some food, the loan of some tools, and a bit of human kindness.

Maren Johnson, NBCT, is a longtime high school science teacher who recently left the classroom. She now works for a state agency on policy related to educator certification. She lives in a beautiful area of rural Washington state with her husband and children.

Small Shifts, Big Difference

One of the simplest lessons I’ll be taking into the new school year came from a small interaction with a student last spring.

I was covering several days of classes for a colleague of mine when this gregarious and clearly outgoing ninth grade student bounded up to me, said their name, then shared “and I prefer the pronoun they.”

I immediately thanked them, saying how appreciative I was that they told me, because I didn’t want to inadvertently be disrespectful. Then, mere moments later as I was calling for the attention of my students…

“Ladies and gentlemen, can I get your faces toward the front please?”

I paused. For all the students knew, I was just waiting for the class to settle. In my head, though, I felt the impact of an important, albeit small, new lesson learned.

Given our political and social climate in this country, matters of gender identity are certainly a hot-button topic. It is easy to fall into an argument about whether alternative pronouns are “okay” or whether gender is a binary or a spectrum. People hold strong opinions on all sides. When I shared this story with a colleague, her reaction was at first “that’s stupid, were ‘they’ a boy or a girl?”

Unfortunately the conversation swiftly devolved, as often happens, down a slippery slope of ridiculousness: “So if a student says they prefer to be called ‘Your Highness’ you’ll just go along with it?”

No, for a simple reason. If a student asks to be called “Your Highness,” they are likely being punchy. It is a bid for some sort of attention. I will not be referring to any student by “Your Highness” unless it is their legal name (which does happen). If a student asks to be referred to with a different pronoun, what sort of asinine power play am I engaging in if I, a grown adult, refuse to comply?

I cannot pretend to imagine what it is like for any person, young or old, to have a pervasive feeling that the identity in their minds somehow is a mismatch with the identity the world expects based on their external, superficial appearances. As we head back to school in the next few weeks, these little but not-so-little things about my teaching are what I am focusing on. I’m at that stage where the lesson planning and delivery could happen on autopilot and kids would still be getting a good enough product. I’m also at that stage where passable practice is no longer permissible… especially if I know better.

We all know that in order for enduring learning to happen, certain needs must be met, not the least of which the need for physical, emotional and intellectual safety. If I turned to that child and said “No, you’re going to have to choose ‘he’ or ‘she,'” what good would it do? What would I actually accomplish other than some purposeless assertion of control? Even if I did for some reason “disagree” with concepts of gender beyond the binary and passive aggressively insist on still referring to them by ‘he’ or ‘she,’ why?

For that gregarious student who introduced themself to me, perhaps me saying “Ladies and gentlemen…” to get the class’s attention wasn’t even a blip on their radar. Or maybe it was. Maybe it was one more little way that they were reminded of being excluded, pushed out, not invited to the conversation we as a class were about to have.

Will anyone notice that instead of “Ladies and gentlemen, please turn your attention the front” I now say things like “Room 101, thank you for giving me your attention”? Probably not. It is a simple shift that requires next to nothing from me. By week three I’ll have a new habit, and the old “Ladies and gentlemen” will be gone.

Some could call this political correctness run amok. I say nope. It is as simple as this: If it is in my control to do such small things to prevent even one student from feeling excluded, why wouldn’t I?

 

 

Vacay-On: The Aspen Ideas Festival

For every completed book I post on Instagram, I add a new novel to my stack. For every workshop I attend, at least a handful of tweets and sixty minutes of happy hour discussion ensue. This is my summer vacay-on. An adios to the grading is a bienvenidos to the reflecting, thinking, and planning for next year. A typical teacher’s summer–whether we like it or not–follows the National Board cycle of plan, act, reflect.

Two weeks ago I found myself learning and reflecting in the mountains suffering from altitude sickness and allergy attacks. My husband, Nate Bowling, was invited to speak at the Aspen Ideas Festival. He slayed (recordings can be found here).

The Aspen Ideas Festival is known as a place where brilliant minds meet, theories clash, and plans are hatched. I had no idea how incredible it would be or how dumb I would feel. I definitely didn’t recognize Katie Couric sitting next to me. Even though I know and love Melissa Block from All Things Considered, I’d never seen a picture. I didn’t recognize David Brooks and Thomas Friedman when they walked past me. I tried not to geek out completely when I met Rabia Chaudry of the Undisclosed Podcast and Serial fame.

Here are some of the sessions I attended:

  • The America Women Know
  • Being Muslim and American in 2017
  • Hate on the Rise–And What We Can Do to Stop It
  • Guns And State Rights: A Loaded Weapon?
  • Creative Tensions: The Responsibility of Identity
  • When Color Blindness Renders Me Invisible to You
  • Building American Talent (Making it in the US)
  • Leadership Through Inspiration
  • Deep Dive: Rural America
  • On Being Latino In America

At first glance, my choices might look like a strange exhibition at the art museum. With a closer look, you’ll notice that each session is like an episode of an epic podcast series (think Serial or S-Town) working to form a complete story. Here’s what I imagine each episode to include.

Episode One: Who are we?
We live in a country comprised of different languages, cultures, values, and perspectives. Yet, as a nation, we struggle to find a sense of identity. Are we a Superpower? Are we the creators of the American Dream? Are we Big Brother? Are we the defender of democracy and justice in the world? Do we have a national language? Are we religious? Are we white or black or brown or multiracial?

We are all of those and none of the above. Because our identity is ever changing, ever evolving, we continuously wrestle with our sense of national identity. Voices press from all sides wanting us to be this or that, praising the merits of color blindness and telling us to ignore our differences.

At the Festival, Haris Tarin (Senior Policy Director for Homeland Security) shared a story about his father who emigrated from Afghanistan. His father always said, “I moved to this country because I would not be accepted for who I am [in Afghanistan]. I think my children will be able to find that acceptance [in America].” While this family found that acceptance, today many Americans can’t find a place to fit in and don’t feel a sense of belonging anywhere. Our culture affirms certain identities and rejects others.

Our students are bombarded by conflicting messages about their identities and place in our world. They bring whatever they’ve internalized into our classrooms and it’s our duty to address them.

Episode Two: Haters Gonna Hate
Yes, it’s official. Hate is on the rise. Say what you will about the reasons for that. Maybe it’s the election. Maybe it’s that we have more technology at our fingertips and therefore are able to document and report these occurrences. Maybe it’s because we’ve moved away from accepting the “kids will be kids” excuse for bullying and harassment and have consequently implemented Student Life departments to prevent and manage cases. Maybe we are more sensitive because we realize it’s not about being politically correct but about not being a jerk. We may be “better off” than we were in the 50s but we still have white supremacy driving the increasing acts of hate. We–especially those of us who are part of the dominate culture, language, or power structures–must stop ignoring this.

In particular, educators must learn how to shut down acts of hate in our schools by identifying symbols of hate and facilitating “table talk” about these issues. We have to stand up for the kids in our classrooms who are systematically pushed to the edges of society.

Episode Three: The Invisible Costs
Throughout the week, I thought about the young women in our schools who are looking at a future where they continue to be paid less than men and have yet to see themselves as presidents. I reflected on the thousands of Muslim children who are carrying the weight of a conflicted identity because we say that in America you can be both, and; however, these kids aren’t allowed that luxury. I wondered about the young Black men in my classroom who pursue their dreams but constantly worry about being stopped by the police for wearing a hoodie and carrying some Takis. I pondered the attacks on immigrants, the ease by which immigrants are targeted and fear of the “other” is whipped up.

Educators, we have to see our students. Start by dropping the assumptions. Examine the expectations we have for our students. Listen to what they share with us. Accept who they are and support them.

Episode Four: A New Hope
As Jonathan Greenblatt said, “The best antidote to hate is knowledge.”

We have the power to stop hate in this country, but we have to intentionally fight it through knowledge and education. Wherever you are, whatever you are blessed to be doing, you have a responsibility to do something with your platform. That might mean doing what Camille Jones, 2017 State Teacher of the Year does with her blog, Farmtable Teach or what teacher leaders are doing over at Corelaborate.

Of course we can’t do this alone but can as a community. Join a network such as #EduColor or create your own network of like-minded educators. We need to work together and collaborate. Even if we don’t agree 100% on everything we have to find a way to organize around the most important 75%. Our children cannot wait for us to stop bickering over nonsense.

Epilogue:
Okay, so maybe this is an extremely short season of your new favorite podcast, but you get the point. Over and over, speakers challenge the audience to see both the beauty and the pain, to challenge our fears, to share our stories, to get uncomfortable, and to grow.

Anyone Can Teach… Except Teachers

The popular narrative is that unionized teachers are destroying public education because of our supposed low standards for performance, laziness, and constant cries for more pay and less work.

States across the country, including Washington, buckled down on teacher performance by reforming the teacher evaluation system to be more rigorous and standards-based. New academic standards were adopted and new tests were designed to measure just how bad we teachers are at teaching, in many cases with the stated purpose of those tests to be to identify and remove bad teachers.

We’re so bad at teaching despite our degrees and training in this complex work, in fact, that the current fashion in education policy is that anyone…ANYONE has to be better at teaching than teachers are.

As you might have seen, states like Arizona are launching policy referred to as the “warm body” approach for teacher recruitment: The main qualification for earning a teaching credential being that you are a carbon-based life form capable of sustaining metabolism.

Even here in Washington, “alternative routes to certification” are gaining traction as more and more classrooms are being staffed by teachers with an emergency credential because of the dearth of capable applicants.

Let’s break this down: Because so few people are choosing to become teachers on purpose, we’re satisfied with taking whomever we can get…and we think this is a solution to our problem?

Maybe, just maybe, it isn’t the unionized teachers demanding better policy and pay who are the problem here. I wonder what will it take for our policymakers…or as importantly, us as a society…to recognize that effective teaching involves a set of complex skills and behaviors which, even in the best of conditions, involves countless variables that must all be managed and responded to on a moment-by-moment basis. It is not something random folks off the street can do well, particularly if those random folks can get paid better to do other, perhaps easier, work. Clearly, we’re not dealing with “the best of conditions” in our schools, so putting a warm body in front of kids is not going to be the solution to our problem, no matter what evaluation system we use or what rigorous standards we demand be taught.

The solutions are the same solutions they have always been: It isn’t about stricter evaluations, higher standards, or better tests. We have to invest money, and more than we think, in order to turn this ship around. We can’t spend a dime and expect a dollar’s return…and then complain because we actually got what we paid for and not more.

If we aren’t willing to make schools as workplaces into the kinds of places where the very best and brightest are not only drawn but want to stay, then we don’t actually care about improving educational outcomes for kids. The latter will never happen without the former.


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Thank a Woman of Color in Education

Note: this blog was originally posted on hope.teague.com under the title “Women of Color In Education Should Be the Norm”

Ate Josie (pronounced a-taay, meaning “big sister” in Tagalog) had a stern face. She was no-nonsense when it came to Children’s Church at TayTay New Life Christian Fellowship. It was 1987 and we were going to learn about Jesus, come hell or high water. It didn’t matter that we were sweating buckets because the ceiling fan had stopped working.

Ann Chau spent every Saturday night at Harvesters Youth Group actively listening to awkward and dramatic teenagers, her eyes simultaneously empathetic and judging. She always listened.  Trustworthy and loyal, she taught us that compassion for others was more important than popularity. She encouraged our crew of misfit, tri-culture kids from around the world. Ann made me feel valued and through our relationship I realized I wanted to do that for other teens.

Christina Tsu was my youth pastor and the “boss” of my senior year internship at a local church (I was still living in Hong Kong). She counseled me as I decided who my closest friends were and what college I would attend. It was under her leadership that I became self-disciplined, learning how to passionately serve others, and how to listen to God through prayer. She shaped my notions of self-worth and my belief in God. This is the year I realized I wanted to teach high school and not become a nurse (plus body fluids are nasty!).

These women left a fingerprint on my life. While my exposure to women of color in leadership and education roles is a little nontraditional (I didn’t attend school in the United States),  it has shaped how I viewed women in power. I grew up thinking that women of all colors could be in positions of power and authority while leading their respective communities. This was my norm.

My experience is not the case for many students of color in the United States today. There are systemic reasons for this exclusion that are embedded in our history of institutional racism. Often, educators of color serve in auxiliary roles such as paraeducators, office personnel, or career counselors.  While this is important and without a doubt these educators change lives, only 18% of certificated teachers are of color. With such a low percentage, it is likely that most students will never encounter a teacher of color in their K-12 career.

Disclaimer: I want to acknowledge that women–particularly women of color–have always been marginalized teachers in society. As mothers, grandmothers, aunties, and sisters, they instill the most important life lessons about the world in their children, grandchildren, and siblings.

Just a couple of weeks ago I lurked in the background of an #EduColor chat titled “Her Struggle, Her Power: Women of Color as Educators.” I felt this chat was one of the most important conversations I’ve joined–not because I actually had anything to say, but because I had everything to learn. A few things stood out to me:

Women in teaching deal with a lot of the same crap from a system that doesn’t value them enough. Teaching was one of the first professions open to women in a society that didn’t view us as intelligent or capable (ironic considering we’re the ones educating future generations *Kanye shrug). So now we’ve “proven” ourselves, but we’ve also proven that we will tolerate poor working conditions and mediocre compensation packages.

Women of color have it even worse than white women. In addition to being poorly paid, teachers of color aren’t treated the same way their white counterparts are. Often they are disproportionately subject to working with “hard” cases and seen only as disciplinarians rather than instructional experts. Furthermore, in addition to gender discrimination, they face straight up racism from students, parents, colleagues, and the system as a whole!

Women of color in education reach students in a way that interchangeable white ladies need to learn from. I’d argue this is probably my most important takeaway from that Twitter chat. But it’s also the most challenging. I’m still grappling with what this looks like. I don’t think this means you awkwardly pretend you understand the WOC experience or say anything weird about how their race must help them connect with all kids from ____ racial background. Maybe start by reading this article by Christina Torres Under Pressure: Being a Woman of Color in Education. Then, go read the transcript of that Twitter chat and comment here with your own reflection.

I am the white woman I am today because of women of color.

To Appreciate a Teacher…

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the cookies.

Those intricately decorated, apple-shaped cookies: I do appreciate those.

And the bacon. That pound of pepper-bacon a group of students gave me after I used a few too many example sentences including bacon in our practice with diagramming sentences.

Then there are notes: Brief or lengthy, the notes from parents, students, former students from over a decade ago whose teenaged face immediately appears the moment I see the name on the return address. Those keep me going and make me feel appreciated, for sure, and are among my most cherished items.

I’ve been lucky that those kinds of little surprises haven’t been relegated to just one week in the year when websites offer discounts or coupons and businesses encourage patrons to “thank a teacher.”

This year for Teacher Appreciation Week, what will really make teachers feel appreciated? Maybe a cookie or a pound of bacon, but most definitely a specific kind of little note will do. A phone call, maybe. A visit to an office. More specifically: notes, phone calls, emails, office visits to our legislative policymakers. That’s how teachers will feel appreciated. Call for a budget that fully funds Washington public schools, not to “throw money at the problem,” but to invest in a system that for the last forty years has been perpetually under-invested in. Call for policies that make sense for kids, parents, communities, and schools. The voices of teachers in this battle are too often discounted as shrill, complainy, or as base union thuggery. The voices of parents, students, and community members are what policymakers have a harder time ignoring.

Teachers know that we are appreciated at the immediate, local level, with our kids and parents. We are thankful for that, for sure. We love the cookies, the treats, and the notes: Those put the wind back in our sails without a doubt.

But this year, consider one phone call, one note, or one office visit to your elected officials who are struggling to get their work done. Little by little those small gestures of appreciation will add up and make a huge difference not just to “appreciate teachers,” but to transform the lives of kids.


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Fakes, Facts, and the Hardest Lessons to Teach

I was numbly scrolling through Facebook a recent morning when one of those infographic-ish memes appeared. Of course, since it was in my feed, it aligned with the political leanings that my clicks and likes had already communicated to the Facebook algorithms, and in my pre-coffee state I found myself hovering over the “share” button.

I had to pause, though. Even though I wanted (desperately) to believe that the political statement being made in the meme was true (hint: it had to do with golf trips and certain federal budget items), I wasn’t sure. I didn’t see any sources linked, I didn’t know who the creator of the meme was, and I didn’t want to spend a ton of time researching its veracity. I did anyway, and after about three minutes of research it turned out that this particular meme had its number off by about 100 times and misrepresented the nature of the budget in question. Darn those pesky alternative facts.

While I didn’t click “share,” that nugget of information, despite being proven false, is now lodged in the schema that I bring to political conversations in the near future. I will have to very intentionally not use it as I form my arguments to support my political positions. That will be hard, because meme-depth facts are what it seems most political conversations resort to anymore.

We hear plenty about Fake News nowadays. Fake News is to critical thinking what super-sized fast food is to our diet: It is convenient, appears to look more or less like it’s authentic counterpart, and satisfies a need. Yes, a flawed analogy if extended completely, but there are valid parallels about the long term health of both individuals and the community. In particular, a good parallel is that the amount of comparable effort it takes to systematically deconstruct and discount Fake News is as seemingly insurmountable as making seismic shifts to unhealthy diet habits. If the latter were easy, we’d all be fit and healthy; if the former were easy, Fake News would be a nonissue.

How do we teach “quick” critical thinking? How do we teach students to resist the temptation of our confirmation biases? How do we teach that facts aren’t established by clicks, shares, or re-tweets…and that our own opinions don’t trump facts just because our opinions are our own?

Forget Common Core. This is the great pedagogical challenge of the next phase of my career.


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Brave New World: Choice Among Alphas

In Aldous Huxley’s early-mid 20th century novel Brave New World, society is medically engineered into five rigid castes. At the top are the Alphas, the genetically and socially gifted; at the other end are the Epsilons, those beings human in form but relegated to work in service to the higher castes.

I used this novel in my Senior Lit and Comp class as one of the works we’d explore while understanding the basics of literary criticism. Brave New World was an excellent study in how to apply a Marxist literary perspective when examining a work of literature. This literary perspective involves looking both within and beyond the world of literature: through the “external” perspective, considering the novel (the physical book itself) as a product within a socio-economic system; through the “internal” perspective, considering the social and economic hierarchies within the story, highlighting the conflict between those who have economic or social power and those who lack it.

We currently seem to live in a world of hyperbole-turned-reality, so I’ll dip my toe in that water: The proposed repeal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (HR 610) is a systematic move to cement social castes maintained not by physical engineering as in Brave New World, but rather, by culling and sorting who is bestowed access to education. Where in the novel it benefits the higher castes to keep the lower castes physically controlled, in our world that control becomes control over access to information and education.

The purpose isn’t even hidden. HR 610 isn’t about serving all students: It states from the outset that it is only serving “eligible students,” which is openly defined in the bill as students whose parents elect to homeschool or send their child to a private school.

Further, under the guise of providing this “choice,” this bill undoes protections for disabled students as established in ESEA. It takes steps toward eliminating school lunch programs for low income students. It pretends that it is creating “choices in education.” When we look at who ends up with the power to choose, it is quite clear that this bill has zero interest in providing a free, quality education to all. If it did, the solution would be invest heavily in improving outcomes for all participants in the system, not just for those who want to get away from “those failing schools” through the power to choose one supposed option over another (even though there is growing evidence that non-public schools in the the choice model being proposed don’t actually serve kids better than traditional public schools).

Public education should be focused less on choices privileged adults are offered and more on equipping every young person with full access to ample choices upon becoming an adult. I want every graduate from my school to have the foundation from which he or she can choose virtually any path: university, work, trade school, family…and not feel locked out of any choice because of some action their guardian did or didn’t take when it came time to seek a supposed golden ticket (hollow promise).

Public education should be about empowering those who are born into situations which, for reasons beyond that little child’s control, place that child at a disadvantage in the face of societal systems constructed for the majority race, majority gender, and majority culture. The vision of the American Dream (a Dream never yet realized), with America as a place of opportunity, once included that those in the majority would use their collective power to ensure that those in the minority progress toward freedom from personal and institutional oppression…so that all those American promises remain possibilities.

Whether this bill dies a quick death or not, it is beyond clear that the potential for public education as a societal equalizer is a threat to those in power. HR 610 is not about helping all kids. Period.